Despite some people not liking the term ludonarrative dissonance, as a concept it exists in Gears of War: the game portrays you as a gruff, take-charge ex-prisoner who has to save humankind; problem is that you’re doing all this while taking cover and rescuing your teammates so that you can progress in a stop-go fashion. The game pushes you forward in its tone and then asks you to stop in its mechanics.
While I’d seen this term thrown about, I was curious as to what step we take after identifying the term.
Gears of War is fairly high in its level of testosterone. Chainsaws attached to guns called lancers. Torque bows reminiscent of Rambo’s exploding arrows. Buffed bodies hidden behind ridiculous amounts of armor. Head stomping of a different race that makes me cringe at its implications. While some would argue that the weaponry is pretty phallic, I’d probably quote Saul Williams to counter argue: “Your weapons are phallic–all of them.“
At the same time, there are disparities that distract from this testosterone building. Yes, we are at war, but instead of running into the action game that Cliff Bleszinski and his crew attest they have made, we are suddenly given a hint of profundity. The writing in the game is steered by an extremely heavy hand that offers little subtlety, which was the desire of the team. Instead of offering nuance, they wanted to provide concrete archetypes and stories with which we were already familiar. This cooperates with the idea that they wanted to provide a game where you could ignore the story if you wanted, or did not need spend time reflecting on it.
At the same time, in the stead of a raucous soundtrack that is set to get my own adrenaline headbanging, I was suddenly treated to an orchestra that sweeps in to try and tweak with my emotions as if I was watching a riveting war drama. Then, at the very end, Fenix stands there, frozen until the last moment, when he finally jumps off the train set to go off the tracks into a chasm. During those moments suspense is built, but there is a lingering feeling that the game wants you to pause again, even in this cutscene. That paralyzation caught my attention, especially when followed by the voice we’ve heard twice before in both the introduction and as Lieutenant Kim is killed by RAAM–the feminine voice of the opposing leader (at various points you’ll hear RAAM go on about the ‘queen’).
The only two females that I noticed during playing the first title were this unidentified voice of the opposition and Anya Stroud, your own team’s intelligence officer who is seen once and then becomes a similarly disembodied voice. You do not directly engage with females, though they do have a clear hand in shaping your course of action. Both are leaders, Anya’s leadership directing you where to progress in your missions.
This dissonance and tension that I feel is faced in both design and narrative seem to me to speak of the masculinity issues surrounding today’s American male, written in by a team that seems to still be finding its own narrative voice and capability, therefore apt to let a lot of themselves show, whether or not that was the intention. It’s by no means a stretch to see the war story presented in Gears of War as reflective of the same faced by America’s own War on Terrorism. What does not seem to be questioned is the masculinity inherent in the equation, especially with females now in roles that they did not hold during the ‘golden years’ mentality that helps us focus on World War II as a focus of heroism.
In looking back at World War II, it is sometimes bandied about that there was a question of masculinity put in the sons of the fathers who returned to American soil post-war–sons who did not have some great enemy or war through which they could prove themselves. This, alongside the rise of female autonomy and self-realization, led to the split we saw during the Vietnam years–a war that was ambiguous on many different levels and left many scars and atrocities that were fully revealed to the public for the first time. Suddenly there was a question of what exactly composed war, masculinity, and nationalism. The question remains today, especially in a world where gender, sex, war, and violence are all commodities in our daily entertainment and consumption.
Gears of War seems caught in the middle of this zeitgeist. It leads to the hokey attempts of profundity alongside those pauses of Fenix that make me wonder what would actually be going through that man’s head now. It is why it seems important to mark that Fenix can save his teammates, instead of just being faced with their loss. Even though the action is cursory, and there is little interaction, it speaks to reliance on others, even if the words said can sometimes ring harsh. The game starts off in a prison with Wretches shrieking and crawling over Fenix’s cell. Labeled a traitor, he has to prove himself, and even then the experience is caught between adrenaline and pausing to assess. Fenix is constantly caught between two different ideologies, both in controls and in his own narrative.
Did I mention that the soldiers are called COGs? For a game that allows you to ignore the narrative, Bleszinski and crew offered up a pretty sardonic view of involvement in war. Considering how it is often opined that males today (just as easily said about females, though whenever this is reported, it’s usually about body image for them) feel as if they are chewed up and spit back out, used and disillusioned, it seems all too perfect to have these soldiers who are all male, with one exception, have such a name attributed to them.
Ludonarrative dissonance in this instance does not speak only to the team that specifically made this game with this jarring experience, but the culture that influenced even them. Developers do not live in a vacuum. Like us, they see various bits of news, films, and can be caught up in the artistic milieu of the times. Even given the time it takes to develop a game, the culture around us is still reflecting on the ambiguities and lack of easy answers over the last eight years (how else do we describe The Dark Knight?). Take that with the growing interest in masculine studies and looking at our own males from teenagers well on into their twenties, Gears fits right in and reflects what we’re seeing in a far off world called Sera.